Theaters have reopened, and stadiums too, but the bookshelves at the Kew Gardens Hills Library remain covered in white paneling as a City-run COVID test site. “The lines are gone. The place is empty and the city has not indicated on when it will reopen,” said Jennifer Martin, a board member of the Friends of Kew Gardens Hills Library.
At the height of the coronavirus pandemic, when Queens was the epicenter among positive cases and Kew Gardens Hills was designated by the State as a red zone, it made sense to repurpose the library as a testing site for the virus. When it began administering tests last October, long lines circling the block included neighbors and patients from across Queens doing their due diligence to prevent the spread.
“No other testing site is located in the hub of a residential zone. The library told us that it has no voice in this. It is up to the city,” Martin said. To demonstrate that there is a public demand for the library’s reopening, the Kew Gardens Hills Civic Association drafted an online petition signed by more than 700 people in the past week.
“The Kew Gardens Hills branch should be a library again,” the petition reads. “Pre-COVID it was one of the busiest branches in the system, and a host to many free programs for children, teens, and adults, a number of them created and paid for by our very active Friends group. The community wants to know when our library will be restored to its proper function.” The statement notes that the library also serves as a cooling center during the hot summer season.
Alan Sherman noted that despite the pandemic, his neighbors continue to seek books, traveling to library branches where grab-and-go service is available. But he also remembered that when the Kew Gardens Hills branch was under construction, a temporary branch was in service across the street. “Why wasn’t a mobile branch brought in? There’s room here for compromise,” he said.
Prior to its reopening in 2017, the city spent $8.1 million to renovate and expand the branch. The effort took four years to complete. “We spent all that money for it to be used as a library. It’s a disgrace that it has not reopened,” said Meshulam Lisker, the chairman of the board of the Kew Gardens Hills Civic Association.
Assemblyman Daniel Rosenthal has been receiving calls from constituents about the library, and was notified of the civic association’s petition.
“We wholly support the City’s efforts to combat the pandemic and understand that every community must do its part to stop the spread, but this should not be a mutually exclusive goal with serving our community,” said his chief of staff Tim Thomas. “Thousands of residents daily utilize the Kew Gardens Hills Library for programming, Internet and book access, and maintaining social ties within the community. We have suggested Queens Library utilize a mobile or temporary site in the time the building is used for COVID-19 testing and have suggested several locations to explore including Queens College as much of the campus is underutilized at the moment.”
Councilman Jim Gennaro is also aware of the petition and is in talks with Queens Library on establishing a date for the restoration of library services at Kew Gardens Hills.
Martin said that, based on Mayor Bill de Blasio’s statement last Thursday, July 1 should appear as a possible reopening date. “We are ready to bring New York City back fully on July 1,” de Blasio said at a news briefing. “Now we can see that light at the end of the tunnel.”
At the time, de Blasio noted that 6.4 million doses of vaccine have been administered among the city’s eight million residents. City data shows that more than 42 percent of residents have received at least one shot of a coronavirus vaccine. Governor Andrew Cuomo, who has often clashed with the mayor on coronavirus policy, also expressed optimism that the city can reopen all of its functions by July 1, if not earlier.
In its phased reopening plan, Queens Library will have 14 locations reopen on May 10 for in-person browsing and computer access, such as Hillcrest, Queensboro Hill, and Richmond Hill – none of which will be open on Sundays.
“Before the pandemic, Kew Gardens Hills was one of a few branches that worked on Sundays,” Howard Schonfeld said. He noted that in a neighborhood with a sizable Orthodox Jewish population, Sunday hours made this branch popular among his neighbors.
While there is plenty of optimism statewide as the numbers of positive cases and deaths decline with each day, the library has not provided a date for reopening the branch on Vleigh Place. “Initially, the branch was slated to serve in that capacity for several weeks, but we have since agreed to extend our partnership with NYC Health + Hospitals, which is currently scheduled to continue until June 30,” said library spokeswoman Ewa Kern-Jerdychowska. “While we know many of our customers want the branch to reopen as soon as possible and we are also eager to serve the public at the branch again, we are committed to supporting the City’s efforts to combat the spread of COVID-19. In the meantime, we encourage customers to visit other open library locations or, if they cannot get to a library, to take advantage of our Mail-A-Book program.”
In this age of smartphones, the use of libraries has not diminished, as they provide learning materials for students, public events, classes in English and citizenship, and advice on employment, among other services. The Queens Public Library is among the largest in the country, with 62 branches. In 2016, the American Library Association listed it as the third busiest in the country based on the total number of visitors in all of its branches.
By Sergey Kadinsky